Monday, 19 November 2012

Hallowe'en & All Souls

I love the month of October. For one thing, it is my birthday month. For another, it is usually the best of autumn – the days have a crisp bite to them, the sun is still making a regular appearance, and the trees are in the height of their dying splendour. Best of all, as the golden light of October changes to the dreary gray of November, we have the holidays of Hallowe’en & All Saints/All Souls.

I love Hallowe’en – what is not to love about dressing up in a costume and reliving the spirit of childhood with one’s friends & children? I’ve never been overly concerned with its supposed ties to paganism, nor have I found the costumes particularly offensive to Christian sensibilities provided that things are all in good fun. Harvest festivals in lieu of Hallowe’en have always seemed to be much more of a pagan thing. As for celebrating Reformation Day instead of Hallowe’en, well, I frankly find that more terrifying and a much more evil holiday – a break in Christian unity is not something that should be celebrated! As for scary costumes that ape the creatures of myth, legend, and darkness – is it not better to be able to face such things through the mockery of a costume than to give them such power that we feel they must be avoided at all costs? I suppose I don’t see scary costumes and decorations as a celebration & exultation in evil, but just as an acknowledgement of the darker things of fiction & legend and breaking them of their power of fear.

I was really looking forward to celebrating Walter’s first Hallowe’en, but being in Germany for only a short while it didn’t seem prudent to splash out on decorations. Our neighbourhood is predominately Turkish and I didn’t know if trick-or-treating was even done here so it seemed silly to buy Walter a costume when we’d be spending the evening at home with no party or trick-or-treaters. So instead we had a special family celebration, watching an animated version of Ray Bradbury’s Halloween Tree (it traces the supposed history of Halloween), eating an autumn themed dinner (bbq chicken, baked potatoes, and corn on the cob), and indulging our sweet tooths (with rittersport, cola, beer, and cakes!). It was a fun little evening and next year I’m hoping that we’re in a place where I can justify buying Walter a little costume.

My slice of shoko-orangen kuchen & David's very questionable looking eclair!

An Autumn dinner

"I asked for milk and they gave me chocolate :("

Right after Hallowe’en comes the Holy Days of All Saints & All Souls, special days of remembering all those who have gone before us in the Great Pilgrimage. All Souls is always a special day for me, a day which I spend remembering departed family members and praying for them. The idea of praying for the dead, and that those in heaven can pray for us, always made sense to me once a Catholic friend explained it to me years ago. If I can ask a friend on earth to pray for me, then why is it any different to ask a friend in heaven to do the same? Praying for the dead perhaps makes less sense if you don’t believe in purgatory, but I still think that believing in the efficacy of prayer it makes sense. Speaking with God is never wasted, for even if the prayers cannot help their object surely we ourselves are helped just by taking the time to spend in reflection & communion with the Lord. I think it is important to remember family, because they are the first ones who set us on our path (for good or for ill). When Walter is old enough to understand I hope that it is a special time we can take to share stories and memories of the family members he won’t have met.

Friday, 16 November 2012


When we moved to Berlin we knew that the main difficulty would be the language barrier. This is particularly so when we thought about church, since neither of us is familiar with the Mass in German. There are the options of English Masses, but we’d need to take the subway to get to them and that quickly gets expensive. David’s solution was to locate a Latin Mass near our house.

For our time here we’ve been going to weekly mass at St Afra’s, part of the St Phillip Neri Institut. It’s Mass in the extraordinary form (for all my non-Catholic readers, that means “old school” or generally the way Hollywood prefers to portray the Catholic Mass) and it’s been a really great experience.

My experience with the extraordinary form until we moved to Berlin was not the best. It was either awkwardly hard to follow or it was ultra-conservative (cute: little girls in mantillas; not-so-cute: priest ranting about male authority/dominance over women) and possibly a little too close to heretical “extraordinary form is the only form and the pope is not the true pope” group. But I’ve really been enjoying our time at St Afra’s – I can’t understand the homilies, which are in German, but based on the crowd and the fact that David hasn’t said “gee, that was a crazy homily” I’m guessing it’s just good, orthodox theology. The Mass is easy to follow and generally it just feels like any other normal church community. There’s even a coffee & cake hour after Mass in the parish shop. We’ve met people from all over the world and it’s a nice mix of everyone from young babies to elderly folks.

The extraordinary form follows a different liturgical calendar, so we got to have the Feast of Christ the King (Christkönigfest) before All Saints. Because it is an important feast we had a special high Mass, with a number of priests in attendance and Adoration at the end, including a litany of saints and the singing of Tantum Ergo. It was so beautiful, with the vestments and banners in the church all changed to gold & white, the lovely chanting of the Schola choir, and the Mass culminating in a beautiful & worshipful time of Adoration. I had convinced Walter to sleep the night before by telling him that he was going to see Jesus at Mass the next day, and therefore needed to sleep so that he could stay in the service, so I was particularly pleased that we had the opportunity for Adoration. Below is the main hymn we sang for the Feast -- Gelobt seist Du, Herr Jesu Christ. It's my new favourite and you can find the German words here.

The solemn beauty and majesty of these extraordinary form Masses is so fitting when you consider that we are actually meeting with Jesus during the Mass. I love that the service begins with the chanting of Asperges me, which always causes me to reflect on Baptism, the remission of sins, and my hope of salvation. You can find an English translation here

 I love the extreme visible reverence shown to Christ & His Body during the Mass, and how we are so often brought to our knees throughout the liturgy. And to be honest, I love the altar rail that separates us from the altar, where we must kneel to receive communion, because this barrier is such a physical reminder of just how sacred the space around the altar & the tabernacle is. 
David & I aren’t planning to become “extraordinary form only” fanatics any time soon. We’ve always enjoyed beautiful liturgy, whether it be in Latin or English, with old hymns or modern worship music. Our main concerns are usually that the homilies/priests/parish are concerned with sound doctrine & adherence to the Church’s teaching, that the music is good and serves the liturgy, and that the community is friendly. We’ve found these things in a variety of very different churches. And in this season we have been given the opportunity to come to enjoy and love the extraordinary form, which I think is a great blessing.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Frugal Cooking: An Epic Pork Roast

My best buy for last week was a 1.5kg pork shoulder roast which I got at the butcher’s counter at Kaiser’s. The meat came to less than €6 and we easily got three hearty suppers out of it. I’m really glad that I’ve decided to do a proper Sunday roast each week with the intent of using the leftovers creatively throughout the week. It makes suppers a lot easier to prepare and means that on Sundays we can have quite a feast, setting the day apart as something special.

This week I wanted to use some of my slowly accumulating spice-collection for seasoning the roast. I decided to adapt a slow-cooker recipe for oven-cooking and the results were really nice. Because the oven tends to bake the juices, rather than just drawing them out into a sauce, the honey makes it a bit of a pain for cleanup but the flavor was really good:

Honey Mustard Roast Pork

1.5kg bone-in pork shoulder
salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed
4 tablespoons good mustard (ie grainy, dijon, German etc – not french’s!)
4 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon dried leaf thyme

Rub salt & pepper into the pork and place in roaster. Combine garlic, mustard, honey, vinegar, and thyme; pour over the pork. Turn pork to coat thoroughly. I had to roast this uncovered, as I only have pizza pans and no tin foil, but you could probably cover it for the first hour or seventy-five minutes and only uncover it for browning at the end. Roasted in a 350º oven for about 35 minutes/pound.

So much roast!
I chopped the remainder of the roast in two, and used the side that had the bone in it to make the pork stronganoff recipe that I’d adapted a few weeks ago. It was even better than the first time! And the extra bonus was that I got to use up the last of the nasty budget spaetzel we had in the house. The main problem with the cheap spaetzel is that it tastes of water & a lack of salt, so this time since I didn’t have much of it left I cooked it and then tossed it with the stronganoff. Problem solved!

The other half of the roast went towards a “dinner for breakfast” meal – I sliced the pork and heated it up on a relatively low temperature in a frying pan. While that was cooking I made applesauce pancakes to go with it. It wasn’t a bad combination, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d do often. Pancakes are too rich for me to eat regularly. And for anyone from the UK reading this, I made proper North American pancakes, not your thin crepes :)

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

What is Truth? Or, Why I Converted to Catholicism

I have been meaning to write my conversion story for quite awhile, but every time I get started I end up getting distracted part way through, and finding that what I’ve written doesn’t really capture what I’m trying to say. How does one even begin to describe such an event?

I became a confirmed member of the Roman Catholic Church in 2003, at the Easter Vigil. I have always been grateful that I converted and joined the Church before I met David. People already struggled to figure out why I would become Catholic, and if he had been on the scene I do not doubt that he would have been mentioned by some as one of the reasons. People have often said it was no surprise, given my love of “old things” and “tradition/ritual” that I converted, and find this irksome enough – to also have a boy chucked into the mix would be too much! Not that I can fault people for not really understanding my conversion. For a long time it was difficult to articulate, and in many ways it still is, because conversion meant breaking with the denominations & religious history of most of my family and many of my friends. It is hard to know just what to say. If “old things” and “tradition” were the motivations behind my faith I would have joined the Mennonite church or perhaps the Orthodox. Those are my family’s historical churches. Joining the Catholic Church felt like a betrayal of the sufferings my ancestors had undergone for their faith. It was not a step I took lightly.

The first, and major, push towards my conversion was the ecumenical movement. Instead of churches relating to each other as “us and them”, they were suddenly co-operating in various events and programs. This gave me the opportunity to attend various Christian events with Catholics, form friendships, and learn about the Church from actual Catholics instead of from people who more often than not were speaking the same misinformation that had been circulating since the Reformation.

The reason that ecumenicism was such a major factor in my conversion, however, isn’t just because it let me get to know the Catholic Church for what she is. Instead, it’s because in seeking to break down barriers between Christians, it called into question aspects of the theology I had grown up believing. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, it was at this point that I began to realise that sola scriptura couldn’t work. Sola scriptura made perfect sense when it was “us & them”, because “us” obviously had it right and “them” obviously had it wrong. Now that we were all getting along, I couldn’t understand why the theological differences that had once been a barrier to Christian unity could seemingly cease to matter. If Christianity was fragmented into numerous denominations because of people’s differing interpretations of scripture, than surely to get it wrong was to place our immortal souls in danger of hell. To suddenly make light of these differences, to attempt to reunify the body of Christ without establishing whose Truth we were going to follow, struck me as impossibility. And if there was no such thing as absolute truth, if scripture interpretation depended solely on what the individual thought, then why did anything matter? For example, some churches believe that Baptism is necessary for salvation, and others do not. How do you reconcile that? One side has got to give in and admit that they are wrong. At this point it became obvious to me that crying Sola Scriptura! wasn’t justification enough. I found myself becoming dissatisfied with my experience of evangelical Christianity. It seemed really out of touch with the day-to-day reality I was living in. My faith was drying up and I felt that what I was supposed to believe had no real foundation.

Various circumstances came together to convince me that spending a year at a Mennonite Bible College would be the best thing for me (and it was). I was given a wonderful year in which to work through my conflicting feelings about Christianity. I was taking classes that were letting me explore my faith, but at the same time I was meeting people who had the same feelings that I did about how fake the practice of our faith seemed. I hardly went to church that year because I just couldn’t handle how empty it seemed, but I also knew that I wasn’t ready to give up on Christianity. It was now a matter of searching for a denomination whose beliefs I could accept.

That school-year ended, and I decided to direct my studies down a more academic path by attending university and studying medieval history. The only Christians friends I had in my new city were Catholic, and they invited me to Mass at the university chaplaincy. It was there that I noticed one could sign up for RCIA (catechism) classes and I decided to give it a shot. I didn’t think that I could be Catholic, but I knew that I couldn’t reject that denomination without learning about its basic beliefs.

RCIA classes started breaking down many of the myths I’d grown up believing about Catholicism, but they hadn’t yet solved my dilemma. Like Pilate, my question over those years was really “what is truth?” I knew that Catholics would have a Catholic bias, so RCIA wasn’t going to be enough to convince me that they had any more claim to truth than anyone else. Then came a university course that surveyed medieval history. It just so happened that the prof (not Catholic) happened to believe that medieval history involved a heavy, heavy dose of church history. And it was this secular course that convinced me once and for all that I could not be a Protestant. I would have to hold true to a church that had a long historical claim to Christianity, a church that could trace its theology back to the apostles without ignoring everything between “the dark ages” and the Reformation. I was left with a very limited selection (for practical reasons as much as anything else) – the main two being Catholic or Orthodox, and from there it was an easy decision. I knew about Catholicism, Catholic churches were accessible (there are less Orthodox churches than Catholic where I’m from), and I was already enrolled in RCIA classes. Provided my RCIA classes didn’t expose any deep, dark Catholic secrets I knew what I would have to do.

To even reach the point of this decision took several years, as you can see. To commit to the decision gave me many sleepless nights. I felt immense guilt & worry over leaving the faith of my family. To change from an Anabaptist to a papist was not a simple shift. Fortunately my parents took the news well (some people were really put-out that they associated with me after my conversion).

I’ll have been Catholic for ten years this coming Easter. I used to wonder if I could really be Catholic for such a long period of time. If I were only drawn to the Church for liturgy & ritual, the answer would be a resounding NO. Were the Christ not in the Church, the liturgy would be empty and the sameness of each Mass would quickly become boring and stifling. It is the very presence of the Holy Trinity in my life as a Catholic that keeps my faith alive and growing. I experience God through His divine grace in the sacraments. I visit Jesus each week at Mass. I witness the working of the Holy Spirit through the ages when I read/discuss Catechism (Tradition!). I have found the answer to my question of what is truth.

The year I converted -- after a Mass that formed part of the confirmation process